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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: December 6, 2017

Portland Stage recreates radio sound effects — and it’s ‘Wonderful’

Written by: Bob Keyes

In these high-tech times, it’s nice to have the chance to imagine when things were simpler, less cluttered and less complicated.

Portland Stage Company makes that kind of time travel possible this holiday season with its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” On stage through Christmas Eve, the play is set in a New York City radio studio in 1945, where the cast recreates the story of George Bailey’s renewal and redemption when he realizes how different his town would be if he were not part of it.

Portland Stage tells a theatrical version of the popular holiday movie, with a twist: The story is staged as a live radio broadcast with sound effects performed on stage that provide a soundscape for the play while creating the ambient sounds of Bedford Falls: the cars in the streets, kids sledding on snow and trains leaving the station. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about the generous and well-meaning Bailey, who explores the depths of his sorrows before changing his heart and realizing his place in the world and the spirit of the holidays.

Photo by Aaron Flacke

Photo by Aaron Flacke

It features a primary cast of five, who give voice to multiple roles, and an ensemble of local kids, who win over the audience with their cuteness. Bailey’s portrayal by actor David Mason is an easy reminder of Jimmy Stewart’s film portrayal.

But the attention-getter is an inanimate object. Located near center stage, the Foley table houses many of the props and implements the cast uses to create the sounds that give the play its texture and depth. As the play progresses, the table becomes the center of the action, with the actors orbiting and rarely straying from its wash tubs, metal pails, cheese graters, whistles and wine glasses.

“The Foley table almost becomes a character in the show,” observed actress Emma O’Donnell, who has learned to coax unlikely sounds from eggshells, coconuts and cereal boxes.

Here’s some of the young cast members talking about the show:

The setup is named for Jack Foley, who worked as a sound technician for Universal Studios in the early days of movies and created many of the go-to sound effects that became popular on film, television and radio. People who perfect the creation of sounds are known as Foley artists, and the specific sounds they create are called Foleys.

Foleys began adding authenticity to radio broadcasts in the 1920s. A sound-effects specialist created all sounds for radio plays live, because technology hadn’t advanced by then to make it feasible to record and reproduce specific sounds. Rather than use recorded sounds in its version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Portland Stage opted for authenticity.

That means O’Donnell and the rest of the cast – and especially the kids – had to learn to create specific sounds using metal buckets, blocks of wood and whistles, and also to coordinate those sounds with the actions of the actors on stage.

“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Antonio Hernandez, a student actor from Portland.

Some of the sound tricks are obvious. The sound of a busy office is achieved by click-click-click-ding of a manual typewriter, and the sounds of feet rushing across a wooden floor are created by clopping shoes aggressively on an elevated wooden board. The suggestion of a family meal comes from knives and forks scraping dinner plates.

But how about horse hooves on the street? Or the sound of a sheet of ice cracking or a sled slicing across ice-packed snow? Director Anita Stewart and sound designer Travis Joseph Wright worked extra hours to teach the actors how to create those sounds, and others, and make them audible and effective for the audience.

For horse hooves, they pour gravel into a sand sifter, then clop half-shells of a hollowed coconut through the gravel. To mimic the sound of breaking ice, an actor cracks an egg and crunches the shells together, very close to a very live microphone. For the sound of kids sledding, they move a roller skate through a tray of Corn Flakes. When George’s angel arrives, heaven is signaled with the ringing of a wine glass, and the sounds of money being counted comes from shuffling a deck of cards.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” said O’Donnell. “This is a whole new experience for many of us. It’s nice to be a part of the original cast, trying it and figuring it out. It’s a lot of fun.”

Photo by Aaron Flacke

Photo by Aaron Flacke

The old-time radio fun begins from the very top of the show, when the cast comes together on stage to sing the curtain speech to thank sponsors (“Thank you to our education sponsor/Maine Media, they always have our back/And thanks to the Press Herald and Down East/Media sponsors, their support we never lack”) and remind people to silence their devices: “Before we start, turn off that phone, and all the things that wail and moan.”

As the show progresses, the story morphs from a pure radio show into a stage play, and the message of kindness, hope and making a difference emerges.

Portland actor Daniel Noel hasn’t missed a holiday show at Portland Stage in 15 years, between “A Christmas Carol” and “The Snow Queen” – and now “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It’s nice to be back,” he said. “This is my Christmas present. I’d rather be doing something for people on stage and having fun entertaining them than doing anything else.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave.
WHEN: Through Dec. 24
HOW MUCH: $15-$65
INFO: 774-0465, portlandstage.org
CAST: David Mason, Courtney Moors, Daniel Noel, Emma O’Donnell and Dustin Tucker, with an ensemble of young local actors.

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